When it comes to cardio training, there's no one exercise that works for everyone. The cardio workout plan you choose largely depends on your goals and preferences. However, for a varied routine, try the following five-day plan at the gym. It's challenging, fun — plus, you can get it done anytime.
Types of Gym Cardio Workouts
Generally speaking, cardio can be broken down into two different types: interval training and steady-state cardio. Both types have their place in a cardio workout plan, and you can combine them throughout the week to meet your minimum activity requirements, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines call for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, spread throughout the week.
Interval training refers to any kind of training that includes short bursts of intense effort followed by recovery periods. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and tabata are forms of interval training.
The difference between the two lies in the length of the interval and recovery periods. Whereas HIIT can be any length, tabata involves 20 seconds of intense activity followed by 10 seconds of rest or low-intensity exercise, done for four minutes.
In contrast, steady-state cardio allows you to maintain a consistent speed and intensity level for the duration of your workout. This form of exercise is performed at a more moderate pace than interval training. By engaging in both moderate and intense activity as part of your gym cardio workouts, you'll more easily meet your requirements without over-stressing your body.
Day One: High-Intensity Intervals
For day one of your five-day cardio workout plan, start with high-intensity intervals on a treadmill. Warm up by walking at a moderate pace with a slight incline for two minutes. At the two-minute mark:
- Increase the incline by 5 to 15 percent and continue walking for three minutes.
- Bring the incline to flat, and increase your pace to a jog or sprint for one minute.
- Repeat the cycle six times for a 30-minute workout, alternating between walking at an incline and jogging or sprinting.
- Cool down by walking flat for a minute or more.
You can switch up this simple treadmill routine by performing additional intervals for a longer workout, adjusting the incline level up or down, or varying the length of the intervals. For example, you could decrease the length of the rest periods and/or increase the length of the sprints. Alternatively, you can perform intervals on an elliptical machine, a stair stepper or a stationary bike.
There are several potential benefits of this type of HIIT. You can complete them in 30 minutes or less, making them perfect for busy schedules. HIIT is also effective at helping you break past a training plateau and improve aerobic efficiency — both of which can help you perform optimally if, say, you're training for a race or other athletic event.
If you're looking to lose weight, HIIT workouts may also help boost your weight loss efforts, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Not only do HIIT workouts help you torch calories quickly, but they also allow you to burn calories after a workout is done due to the oxygen demands placed on your body.
Day Two: Steady-State Cardio
Use the treadmill, elliptical, bike or stair-stepper to walk, run, glide, cycle or step at a consistent pace and effort throughout your workout. Low-intensity, steady-state cardio generally needs to be performed for longer periods to gain the full cardiovascular benefits — roughly 30 to 60 minutes — especially if you're trying to lose weight.
ACE notes that because steady-state cardio allows you to work below your maximum heart rate, it's an effective way to improve cardiovascular health and aerobic capacity. It generates less metabolic waste and cellular damage than HIIT workouts and also may help your body efficiently burn fat for fuel.
If you're training for an endurance event, such as a marathon or triathlon, steady-state cardio will help you prepare. Be cautious not to overdo it on this type of training, as it may increase your risk of repetitive stress injuries due to the lengthier sessions.
Day Three: Tabata Workout
A traditional tabata workout follows a training protocol consisting of 20 seconds of all-out effort followed by 10 seconds of rest, over a period of four minutes. As a type of interval training, tabata-inspired training can take on different forms.
For example, you can perform tabata at lengthier intervals or for a longer total workout. The idea is simply to incorporate work intervals that are twice as long as the rest periods, and you get the same benefits as other forms of interval training.
For day three of your cardio workout plan, use the treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike or stair stepper to perform intervals at a 2-1 work/recovery ratio for 30 minutes. Choose a different machine than you used on the first day so you can continue challenging different muscle groups throughout the week.
Day Four: Circuit Training
Circuit training typically includes several different exercise stations. You complete the exercises one station at a time without resting in between. You can set up as many stations as you like to complete one or more circuits within 30 to 60 minutes.
Circuit training is fun yet challenging, and you'll be amazed at how quickly the time flies by. They're big calorie burners: A 30-minute session burns about 300 calories for a 155-pound person, according to Harvard Health Publishing. You can also create a variety of different circuits and even incorporate different types of equipment, such as resistance bands, dumbbells and kettlebells.
It might not always be possible to set up a bunch of different circuits at the gym, depending on space and the availability of equipment. If you can do it, though, you can perform a simple circuit that includes both aerobic and strength exercises. Some gyms also offer group circuit training or personal training that incorporates circuits.
For your day-four circuit, you'll alternate brief bouts of cardio exercise with strength exercises that you can complete using your own body weight. Hop on any cardio machine and go for four minutes at a steady, challenging pace.
Then get off the machine and perform 60 seconds of a body-weight exercise, such as push-ups, mountain climbers, lunges, squat jumps, plank up-downs or burpees. Repeat the circuit six times or more, using a different body-weight exercise each time.
Day Five: Cardio-Based Class
Make day five your "fun day" of your gym cardio workouts with a cardio-based fitness class at your gym or at a boutique studio. Most cardio classes are about an hour long and are set to music. Here are a few possibilities:
- Zumba — Great for anyone who enjoys dance, this class combines movements from a variety of dance styles.
- Water aerobics — This workout involves performing exercises in waist-high water, sometimes using weights.
- Spin — Using a stationary bike, you'll likely alternate between periods of intense effort and rest, climbs and flat roads as your instructor guides you to increase or decrease resistance.
- Kickboxing — Perform punches, kicks and other high-energy movements, with or without a punching bag.
Many people thrive on the group-fitness atmosphere, where you have a live instructor teaching you proper form and technique. You also have fellow students there to help inspire you. You might even meet a few new friends by attending a favorite class regularly. In fact, Harvard Health Publishing notes that working out in a group setting may help you stick to an exercise plan.
- American Council on Exercise: "Steady State Vs. Interval Training: Which One is Best for Your Clients?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Perks of Group Fitness Classes"
- NASM: American Fitness Magazine Summer 2017: "CEU CORNER: Metabolic Training: Is Cardio Worth Your Time?"
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"